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Buddhist Symbolism in American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

In American Born Chinesei by Gene Luen Yang, we find the interlacing of three different narratives that describe the coming of age of Jin, an American teenager of Chinese descent, in an environment that confronts him with being constantly subjected to stereotype and with the quest of finding identity among the judgment of others. While the reader is faced with many of the issues relative to the protagonist’s racial background in American society, one of the recurring themes that appear throughout the graphic novel is the transformation that takes place in Jin and in his approach to the external elements that cause his difficulty in finding his place in the world. Jin’s journey, though, does not come to a clear conclusion. In the last frame (233) the reader is left to wonder whether the author intended his main character to passively accept his position as a victim of prejudice or ignore the dream of becoming his alter ego Danny as a form of compromise to peace of mind. This essay will explore a different possibility: that the moral of Yang’s story is not to be found on the last pages of the book, but in the novel as a whole, and this will be proven by analyzing text and images through a Buddhist lens and by comparing the depiction of change with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Through this interpretation it will be established that Jin has found balance not by accepting the immutability of the situation, but by realizing that external factors cannot be relied upon in order to reach happiness and that one’s past and future desires should not be considered important, as only by living in the present moment is possible to find serenity.

The reason behind analyzing American Born Chinese from a Buddhist perspective comes from the many cultural clues contained in the novel, first one being the adaptation of the Monkey King folk tale to represent the road to self-acceptance. The Journey To The West storyii – also known as The Monkey King tale – was originally published in the sixteenth century by Wu Cheng’en and recounts the long journey towards enlightenment of Buddhist monk Xuanzang, during his attempt to cross China and Central Asia to obtain sacred scriptures. In Yang’s book we find a Christianized version of the tale, in which Gautama Buddha is substituted by a western looking God that speaks out using words from The Bible (80-81). One of the interpretations of why Yang has chosen to merge these two religious stories to represent an aspect of Jin’s development is that he intended to highlight the mixed cultural background of people with hyphenated identity, but perhaps this is not the only one. It is known that Yang himself is a Christian and teacher in a Catholic Schooliii, but by using a Buddhist tale as a life metaphor it could be argued that Buddhism should not be seen as an alternative creed to Christianity, but as a philosophy rich in lessons that can be applied to any culture. If, as it appears in Yang’s Monkey King tale, Buddhism and Christianity are not conflicting ideologies, it is possible that the Christianization of the parable is a way to make the Buddhist message contained in it simpler to understand for the western audience for which the book is meant for.

A link between American Born Chinese and Buddhist philosophy can be drawn by connecting the three narratives of the graphic novel with the three marks of existenceiv that characterize every being according to Buddhism: Aniccav (impermanence), Dukkhavi (unsatisfactoriness) and Anattavii (absence of self). Of these three concepts, Anicca is certainly the most prominent throughout the book as a visualization of it can be seen in the transformation that occurs in the Monkey King, from animal to Chin-Kee, but also in how Jin and his alter ego Danny evolve. In Buddhism, the doctrine of impermanence establishes that every being, object, emotion or event lives in a constant state of flux and is subject to unstoppable change, therefore desire or attachment to any physical or mental object is due to cause pain as nothing is permanent and every thing is bound to decay. To accept Anicca means to get one step closer to enlightenment, and we find at least two references to this task by the end of American Born Chinese. After the completion of the journey to the west (215), the son of the Monkey King shows an interest in becoming an emissary like his father, which can be interpreted as a journey toward enlightenment. God gives him a clear piece of advice “For his test of virtue, Wei-Chen was asked to live in the mortal world for forty years, all the while remaining free of human vice” (217). In order to succeed Wei-Chen has to avoid desire, as this, according to Anicca, will only cause suffering. In the following frame he is given a Transformer toy by his father to be reminded of who he really is: an impermanent being, bound to always change (217).

Not understanding Anicca leads to the second of the three marks of existence, Dukkha. With this term Buddhists describe the suffering caused by the frustration of never obtaining what one desires, but also to the pain of feeling an attachment to pleasure, which, due to its impermanent nature, is bound to disappear. Yang shows this vicious circle taking place on multiple occasions. In every chapter of the book Jin is desiring to be someone he is not in the hope of being accepted by the people that surround him, but even when this desire of acceptance becomes reality, happiness does not seem to last, causing Jin to fall back into sadness. The first instance that can be connected to the concept of Dukkha is found when Jin decides to change his appearance to be more attractive for Amelia. From page 87 we see a growing interest from Jin toward his classmate, in a build-up of emotions that lasts for seventeen consecutive pages, until the protagonist manages to find the courage to ask Amelia out. In the following frame (106) Jin seems to have reached the absolute peak of happiness, after having received a positive answer from the girl he is so infatuated with. This state of accomplishment only lasts for one page: as soon as Jin meets Amelia on their first date (164) preoccupations arise one after the other. Jin worries about his smell and shortly after about leaving a soap mark on Amelia’s shoulder, to then admit total “desperation” to Wei-Chen the morning after (174) and being confronted by Greg (180).

An even stronger link to Dukkha can be found in the scene where Jin undergoes the transformation into Danny, after dreaming of the herbalist’s wife (193). Here we see our protagonist becoming his dream self, but this also does not appear to be enough for him to be satisfied in his own body. In the course of a few hours since Jin has conquered his biggest goal of becoming Danny, frustration is back to haunt him in the form of Chin-Kee. Even though Jin is the furthest he has ever been from the Chinese identity he despises so much, stereotype and shame are still present to the point that they lead to violence and physical pain after the fight with Chin-Kee. The fact that it is the herbalist wife that causes the transformation is another reference to the Buddhist tradition: traditional Tibetan herbalism has existed for over 1,400 yearsviii and Buddhism makes use of it to promote a healthier and more balanced life. Sowa-Rigpa medicine, as it is known in Hindi, embraces the Buddhist idea that sickness is ultimately caused by ignorance, therefore it is symbolic that in American Born Chinese the wife of the herbalist helps Jin to get better from his state of anger (192), but fails because his lack of awareness leads him to fall back into a negative mindset.

The concept of Anattaix, the last of the three marks of existence according to Buddhism, is also present inside American Born Chinese, but in a more subtle way compared to Anicca and Dukkha. To find it represented it is necessary to understand the Buddhist view on ego, as this is strictly connected with the idea of not-self. While the term “ego” originates in psychology to define the mental construction of identity, a similar concept named Atman is used in Buddhist literature to describe self. This becomes important within the doctrine of Anatta, as Buddhists establish self as being nothing else than an illusion, with the “I” in which we perceive ourselves being empty and essentially made of nothing. Gautama Buddha, present in the unedited version of Journey To The West, clarified to his first five disciples the idea of not-self in his second speech after enlightenment, the Anattā-lakkhaṇa Suttax (“Discourse on the Characteristic of Not-self”), explaining that there is no separate ego-entity, no soul or substance that can be separated from our bodily and impermanent form.

The illusion of picturing ourselves as something we are not is visualized by Yang in multiple parts of his graphic novel. In Journey To The West, the dangers of following the ego are represented clearly after the Monkey King achieves the four major disciplines of invulnerability, but is still not accepted as a God upon his arrival in heaven. All of the deities refuse to call the Monkey King with anything else than what they see as his true form and his anger turns quickly into a rage that pushes him to fight and injure the members of the group he is not allowed access to. Feeling invincible, the Monkey King claims through violence his status as a God, but after meeting Tze-Yo-Tzuh (68), the creator of all existence, he is confronted with his vulnerabilities and punished with imprisonment under a mountain of rocks for five hundred years. This part of the tale shows the pointlessness of the Monkey King’s sacrifices and time investment in the attempt to become what he imagines to be a better version of himself, just to fulfil the desire to outgrow his nature and become a God. Tze-Yo-Tzuh states without emotion “You are a monkey” (69) and the stress caused by this accusation pushes the Monkey King to flee out of the God’s reach. Ego symbolism abounds toward the end of the chapter: when the Monkey King finds himself in front of the five golden pillars he cannot “[…] miss out on a chance for recognition” and engraves his name onto what turns out to be the finger of God. This form of disrespect toward nature can be seen as a willingness to fight against the reality that there is no other self than one’s body, to then be punished by nature itself. In the last frame of the chapter (84), the Monkey King is blocked under a mountain of rock that prevents him “from exercising kung-fu”. Kung-fu, one of the oldest styles of Chinese martial arts, was developed in a Buddhist Shaolin temple of Henan province in China to strengthen the bodies of monks for prolonged meditationxi. The reason behind stopping the Monkey King from practising this noble art is to allow him to understand that one should not train to follow the impossible dream of becoming a different self, but to find peace and self-actualization in the disciplines of war.

The following chapter of the Monkey King story (133 – 160) confirms the hypothesis that the mountain of rocks is, in fact, the Monkey King’s ego stopping him from reaching enlightenment. The chapter starts with the description of the four monks that obtained “legendary status”, which appears to be an analogy with the four Buddhas that have appeared on Earth during the last Kalpa (a long period of time according to Hindu cosmology). According to scriptures, a fifth Buddha (Maitreya) is expected to appear before the end the current Kalpa and, from the last frame of this chapter (160), it could be argued that the Monkey King has succeeded in freeing himself from ego by dropping the shoes he was wearing to look like a God, and is now proceeding toward enlightenment – represented by a bright star in the sky – accompanied by the teachings of the monk that has managed to convince him that “the form you have taken is not truly your own, return to your true form and you shall be freed” (145).

The events happening to the Monkey King during his route to self-acceptance often appear to have connections to what happens to Jin in his first days at school, which just as well relate to the concepts of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and absence of self: the Monkey King wears shoes like the deities in heaven to then leave them behind after fighting the demons, and Jin gets a western haircut that disappears after he has fought his own personal demon, Chin-kee; the Monkey King disrespects Tze-Yo-Tzuh – the God that tries to convince him of his origins – by urinating on his hand and gets punished with imprisonment under a mountain, while Jin disrespects Wei Chen – a person who reminds him of his origins – by kissing his girlfriend and is punished by solitude in his room; the Monkey King acquires superpowers that lead to more trouble than good, and Jin becomes Danny overnight causing him to fall into more frustration and anger against Chin-Kee.

While the final page of American Born Chinese may appear to be an abrupt end to the story, if a Buddhist approach is applied to understand the graphic novel it becomes easy to see that no exceptional event has to occur in order to conclude with a happy ending. The cover page introduces us to the narrative with the image of a divided Jin – perhaps between who he is and who he wishes to be – holding a Transformer toy, symbol of change, with the Monkey King buried under his own ego, the mountain of rocks. These are the elements to which the protagonist is confronted to throughout the story, until the conclusion (233) in which he appears smiling, finally enlightened by the everydayness of the situation, not seeking satisfaction in an alternative reality but being comforted by the awareness of normality.


Works Cited

i Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Square Fish, 2006.
ii Cheng’En, Wu. Journey to the West. Publisher unknown, 1592.
iii Chen, Alice C. “The Humble Comic.” SFGate, 11 May 2008, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
iv The Dhammapada. London (58 Eccleston Sq., SW1V 1PH), Buddhist Society, 1983.
v “Anicca” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2011, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
vi “Dukkha” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2011, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
vii “Anatta” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2011, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
viii “Short history of Tibetan Medicine.” Tibetan Medicine Education Centre, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
ix “Buddhist Dictionary.” Buddhist Dictionary, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
x “Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic.” Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
xi Burr, Martha, and Gene Ching. “From Shaolin Temple to Bruce Lee – 100 Kungfu Styles of the Past Millennium .” Kung Fu Magazine, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.